June 19, 2016

A more appropriate title for “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a new play by Israel Horovitz that opened on Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theater, might be “Dead Man’s Harem.” In this improbable and eventually even fantastical comedy, enlivened by an excellent cast including Judith Ivey and Estelle Parsons, four women who have all been involved with the same man gather to mourn him in his Paris apartment. First on the scene are Evelyn (Ms. Parsons) and Evvie (Ms. Ivey), who exchange polite conversation that becomes somewhat less polite when Evelyn learns that Evvie used to be called Snookie — a nickname bestowed by the man they both loved (whose name is never mentioned). It was Snookie who broke up Evelyn’s marriage to the man. The portrait that emerges of this lifelong womanizer is not a very appealing one. He met all the women in his life, it appears — and there were many, including his first wife, the original Snookie, who killed herself after Evelyn came along — when they were students attending his literature classes at the Sorbonne. Serial predator, one might call him today. Plus: He refused to do dishes. But apparently, and we must take it on faith, he was irresistible, at least to the young women dazzled by his intellect and sophistication. While Evelyn and Evvie are discussing their past, the name Janice crops up. It’s confusing, but apparently Janice slipped in when Evvie was over, but then Evvie came back. Enter Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi), a decade younger than Evvie (who’s 68 to Evelyn’s 88). She is startled to learn that both Evelyn and Evvie received email invitations to the funeral from an unknown woman, and were even given plane tickets so they could fly from the United States. Janice had to read about her former husband’s death online, and invited herself. She’s so upset by this information that she heads straight to a window and tries to jump out — echoing an act of years before, when she discovered her man was back with Evvie and tried to kill herself. Fortunately, this time, too, she fails, when Evelyn and Evvie pull her back from the brink. (The frequent jokes about suicide strike a rather sour note for a comedy.) The mystery of Janice’s non-invitation is solved when a fourth woman enters the apartment the next day: Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), bubbly and younger than Janice by two decades, who reveals that she was the last to marry the dead man. Warmly apologetic, she explains that she hadn’t realized Janice was still, er, available. (The implication is she thought Janice was dead.) More peculiarly, Marie-Belle matter-of-factly says that she and her husband remain in communication, causing three pairs of eyebrows to rise — not counting those in the audience. Mr. Horovitz has written more than 70 plays, including “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” (for which Ms. Ivey earned a Tony nomination in 1992) and “My Old Lady” (in which Ms. Parsons has appeared, and which Mr. Horovitz recently turned into a movie starring Maggie Smith). “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is not among the most substantial, though it offers roles that snugly fit all four actors. Evelyn has the sharpest tongue, and Ms. Parsons, with her tart acerbity, makes the most of it. When Janice solemnly reflects that she has “never chosen men who make me happy,” Evelyn replies, “There’s possibly no such thing as men who make women happy.” Earthy and funny, tilting between sympathy and smiling antagonism, Evelyn has moved far beyond the emotional tumult of her relationship with the dead man. So has Evvie, whom Ms. Ivey imbues with a wry warmth. (Rather bizarrely, Evvie, Evelyn and Janice all came from Boston; apparently the departed Lothario had a thing for New England women.) Evvie never married, preferring to sleep with married men, and eventually established a career writing for television. Janice, on the other hand, still seems susceptible to the tug of old associations. As played with an amusing air of self-seriousness by Ms. Fiordellisi (who is also the artistic director of the Cherry Lane), Janice, who apparently has made several suicide attempts over the years, keeps sliding toward sadness. Evelyn and Evvie are never quite sure she won’t make another dash for the window. And Ms. Choy-Kee brings an easy radiance to her performance as Marie-Belle, making her giggling suggestions of continued sexual relations with her dead husband more amusing than distasteful. She also imbues the character with a sweet, wide-eyed naïveté, so that when Marie-Belle reveals she invited the others not just for the funeral but also to stay and live with her in the apartment, you accept this odd idea as being sincere — as opposed to insane. Although the acting, under Barnet Kellman’s direction, keeps things lively, and the growing camaraderie of the women suffuses the stage with a mild congeniality, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” lacks dramatic drive and has only an intermittent comic bite. To distract yourself from unhappy reflections on the actors’ superiority to their merely serviceable material, however, you can bask in (or sigh in envy at) the lovely set by Neil Patel, an airy loft whose high walls are covered from top to bottom in artwork. A program insert identifies all of the artists, and they are oddly assorted, with an emphasis on paintings and photos by boldface names. I happened to know that Joel Grey was a gifted photographer and artist, but was surprised to learn that Rosie O’Donnell, Eve Plumb, Billy Dee Williams and Tina Louise also moonlighted as painters. “Out of the Mouths of Babes” may not be a major play, but it doubles as an unusual gallery show.